Making sense of what’s happening to Wi-Fi

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Making sense of what's happening to Wi-Fi

Introduction and current trends in Wi-Fi

When did Wi-Fi get so confusing? We all know that Wi-Fi is migrating to 5GHz, but that’s about to be exacerbated by the arrival of LTE-U. But what of HaLow, 802.11ad, 802.11ax, 802.11ay, WiGig, LPWAN and MU-MIMO? Why are Intel, Peraso, and Qualcomm all focusing on 802.11ad?

Mostly it’s about improvements in efficiency, range, and power consumption, but here’s our guide to Wi-Fi, how it’s changing, and what it means for IT – and the IoT.

Current trends in Wi-Fi

The IEEE 802.11 family of LAN standards is what we know as Wi-Fi. Recently Wi-Fi routers have been moving from 802.11n to the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, with the number of speed increasing antennas multiplying, too.

The last few years have also seen printers, cameras and smart home devices using Wi-Fi Direct, an ad-hoc P2P network that peaks at 250Mbps. However, the real evolution in Wi-Fi routers of late has been the choice of using either the 2.4GHz and 5GHz spectrum in homes, with so-called ‘2G’, the former, being the original flavour of Wi-Fi. 2G is crowded but offers better coverage than ‘5G’, which has a shorter range but higher data rates.

So 2G is great for using when you’re in the attic far from the router, and 5G is best for when you’re close to it and want to download a movie. Routers that offer 2G and 5G are everywhere, but there’s a lot more to Wi-Fi’s future.

The Asus RT-AC5300 is a tri-band gigabit router

What is AC5400, AC5300, MU-MIMO and 802.11ax?

2016 has seen a few so-called ‘tri-band gigabit’ 802.11ac Wi-Fi routers. Although these promise between 5,300Mbps to 5,400Mbps per second – hence the use of two informal names, AC5300 or AC5400 – this is actually just the addition of an extra 5GHz channel to the regular dual-band routers.

As such, this innovation is about added convenience to existing tech, not something radically new. Incoming models include the Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream and Asus RT-AC5300, both of which also include MU-MIMO, which stands for Multiple User, Multiple-Input, Multiple-Output.

Recognising that modern homes are clogged with myriad devices all vying for bandwidth – especially video streaming – MU-MIMO shares that bandwidth equally and is expected to become a default feature on Wi-Fi routers of the future.

Much more exciting is the prospect of Wi-Fi routers with 802.11ax. Now under development and primed for launch in 2019, 802.11ax has been shown to offer 10Gbit/s while still operating in the 5GHz band. ABI Research forecasts that 802.11ax will account for 57% of Wi-Fi chipsets by 2021. So 802.11ax is the ‘next normal’ for Wi-Fi routers.

WiGig is all about ultra-fast speeds

What are 802.11ad and WiGig?

These are exactly the same thing. WiGig (short for Wireless Gigabit) is premium Wi-Fi, using the unlicensed 60GHz spectrum to deliver astonishingly fast speeds of up to 7Gbps via four 2.16GHz bands. As such the gigabit Wi-Fi offered by WiGig is perfectly suited to the 5G era, when Full HD and 4K video will be created and uploaded by smartphones. Whether 5G or WiGig is being utilised won’t make much difference to the user, which is the point behind WiGig; seamless data transfers of uncompressed video wherever you are.

Its 5G tie-up means WiGig won’t be seen for a few years yet, though trials are underway. TP-Link, NetGear and Elecom all demoed WiGig routers at CES 2016, while Peraso just showed off the first WiGig USB dongle at Computex 2016. Expect WiGig access points, networking adaptors and, eventually, tablets, smartphones and laptops.

ABI Research estimates that by 2018, over 600 million WiGig chips will be sold annually. Also on the horizon, as an enhancement to WiGig, is 802.11ay – it works at 60GHz and offers as much as 20Gbit/s, though it can only work at very short range.

Wi-Fi HaLow and LTE-U

What is Wi-Fi HaLow?

The narrowband IoT is driving new innovations in Wi-Fi and connectivity. Although many connected devices aimed at smart homes and industry can use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, they need not more capacity, but more range. Based on the IEEE 802.11ah standard, HaLow uses the 900MHz band, which has a much greater reach, and doesn’t require much power.

The flipside is that it only manages between 150KB to 18MB per second, but that’s no big deal for smart home devices that only need to exchange tiny amounts of data. HaLow also goes through walls easier. An official standard of the Wi-Fi Alliance, expect HaLow to go live on tri-band routers in 2018.

Sigfox is an LPWAN tech challenged by HaLow

What is LPWAN?

HaLow is basically a branded, Wi-Fi Alliance-certified flavour of Low-Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN) technology that will work on powered Wi-Fi routers. Also a low-bandwidth connectivity tech ripe for the age of the IoT, cellular LPWAN dodges Wi-Fi access points in favour of mobile networks, but otherwise offers more or less the same features. Its key advantage over any Wi-Fi technology is lower power consumption.

LPWAN is better known as Sigfox, LoRa, HyperCat and Weightless, and claims to be the ‘missing link’ in the IoT for smart meters, smart cities, smart bins and anything else that needs to communicate over long ranges on low power.

Since it’s less power-intensive than Wi-Fi, LPWAN will be favoured for smart farms and other really wide-area applications that use environmental sensors and motion sensors, but HaLow makes LPWAN less relevant in areas where Wi-Fi routers could be used instead – such as in the smart home and smart buildings.

Wi-Fi Direct is being used to set up smart home devices such as Wi-Fi scales

What is LTE-U?

The ‘U’ stands for Unlicensed, though Qualcomm’s LTE-U is also known as LTE-LAA (LTE-License Assisted Access). An effort to increase the capacity of LTE mobile networks, LTE-U tries to use some of the unlicensed spectrum – typically the 5GHz frequency band currently favoured by Wi-Fi – around the world that’s currently not used. This varies between countries and regions, and some of that spectrum might already be used by short range radio transmissions by police, hospitals or industry.

LTE-U could be a way of extending LTE mobile networks where and when it’s needed (it could even mean gigabit internet access for phones), but there are concerns that if mobile network operators go crazy for it, existing Wi-Fi networks could be squeezed. Therefore the Wi-Fi Alliance is against the use of LTE-U, and regulators are dragging their heels.

Either way, with ABI Research predicting that more than 20 billion Wi-Fi chipsets will ship between 2016 and 2021, one thing’s for sure – as mobile devices balloon in number and the IoT catches on, the thirst for faster, wider and better Wi-Fi is not going to let up.

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